Good & Plenty
Several of my previous posts have dealt with our personal pantry and food stores. But February is a hard month for the livestock pantry too. It’s been a long time since the pastures were green, so it isn’t surprising winter is the common time to see livestock going downhill or down, period. The problem lies in the quality, quantity and correctness of the food for the animal. It’s funny even people who take great pains to buy the very best for their family may fudge on livestock feed. And actually, I think it is harder to find good quality livestock feed. Whether it’s hay or grain. Livestock feed quality takes a backseat. Organic isn’t necessarily the answer either, most farms these days practicing organics are just conventional farms with an “allowed” set of amendments. Same mindset, different stuff.
We have been taught to rely on math and science to help us and fix our problems. Forage analysis will tell us what our pasture is doing, so we can make decisions about minerals and other feedstuffs. That is a good thing, I like numbers, but they can let you down too, if you rely on them too much without doing a visual analysis of your stock every single day, and re-calculating in your mind what you actually see. A forage analysis on your pasture during the growing season won’t tell you much in the winter, if you are buying your hay from some land somewhere else that is farmed differently than yours. On the subject of feeds too, not all grains test the same, yet a feed recipe will tell you that if you add so much of this, and so much of that, you will be guaranteed a certain protein level. Ain’t so folks.
We humans are so good at looking what is right in front of our faces. We simplify what we see to a fault. COW DOWN – GET COW UP! Of course, we have to get the cow up, but it is modern feeding practices that have caused many of those cows (and it isn’t just cows) to go down in the first place. Along with other modern conveniences and our affluent lifestyles. We have turned over our own food supply to someone else and we have done the same with our livestock.
Mama feeds the new little dairy heifer with milk replacer because mama wants all that milk for the family or to sell. Meanwhile Daddy is out fertilizing the hay field with store bought fertilizer, because cleaning the manure out of the barn is a chore, and the NPK from the farm supply store is neat and tidy and really makes that hay tall. As the calf grows, Mama laments just how expensive the milk replacer is, and after a bag or two, quits buying it and gets that calf on more calf starter and hay. Daddy is walking his fields and counting on a high tonnage yield. Always looking forward, counting and adding in the positive column, but never seeing that while the little dairy heifer is growing, her rumen is compromised from bad fat in the milk replacer and too much grain and not enough forage. Those observations don’t get made and don’t get put down in the negative column. The tall growing grass gets made into hay and gets fed, the hay is most likely minerally imbalanced because there really isn’t too much focus on true soil health, just rapid growth. And so the story goes, the calf grows, the hay grows but no one really thrives. The calf gets sold, and moves to another farm, she may be a family milk cow, and when she goes down it will be devastating. But where to point the finger? At the unnatural rearing which may have included a poorly timed breeding resulting in a winter calf, or the modern, convenient feeding methods and feedstuffs? When you buy a cow, how do you know if her calfhood started out being born in a mud hole? A calf’s tender hooves, umbilical cord, nose and mouth are all entry points for bacteria. It should be good bacteria, not swill. Dirty conditions aren’t the same as dirt. And this isn’t just the big, dirty dairies on the news, it may be the guy next door with a couple of cows. Maybe he doesn’t know any better, or maybe he doesn’t care. The outcome for the calf is always the same. It’s a testimony to a how tough cattle are – they survive despite our interventions.
How do we make changes? Most people who set out to procure livestock for meat and milk, usually have some land. You don’t usually see someone boarding livestock as is common with horse ownership. So the simplest but the hardest to implement is seasonal production. We are so steeped in the on-demand store mentality, that we demand our own personal store at home on the farm too. We want milk year-round, and thus breed our animals for fall and winter babies. Some of this is a hold-over from showing and the sale barn. The earlier babies (that survive) will be larger at show or sale time and may command a better ribbon or bigger check. Never mind that you are putting that cow or ewe into a negative energy balance with fall, winter or early spring birthing. All of us do better with a good spring cleansing. Spring tonic if you will. A month on good pasture before birthing is a wondrous thing. The mother’s body can detoxify from all that winter feeding, and gives the baby a better start. And just in case you think I don’t know what I’m speaking of, well, we used to have some winter calves, I have done my share of being the valiant “hero”, saving the calf from snow, ice and wet conditions. Trust me, that is not being a hero – if I did a better job, that calf would not need saving. It’s the same with all farm animals, if your sow is dragging her nipples through the mud continually, when it comes time to farrow, she may have a sub-clinical infection that isn’t readily apparent. But giving birth is hard work, if you don’t feel good, you don’t do a good job, you may not care if your babies make it or not. We all need to empathize a little and put ourselves in the position we put our stock in. Do you want to eat your dinner on a dirty plate or drink out of a dirty glass? Sleep in the cold mud? Give birth in the outhouse? Probably not. They don’t either, but they don’t always have a choice.
The other thing is try to feed what the animal needs – if you have a cow that was raised with grain or excellent pastures, you will need to supplement if you don’t have good pastures. Buying minerals is not a bad thing – and they can make up for poor quality forage or feedstuffs until you get your land in good shape. No matter what it looks like – it is mostly likely the pasture is depleted and any resulting hay from the land will be too. And that goes for bought in hay too. Grass hay these days, may be just baled up tall grass, sometimes fertilized, sometimes not. If the hay is an actual crop, like it is here east of the mountains, it will be irrigated, highly fertilized, and inviting problems for the stock. A hay buying tip, buy from someone who has grazing livestock, even if they aren’t spreading their manure, the benefits of animals on the land are apparent in the subsequent crops. Of course there are many variables to take into account, but that would be a good place to start.
Most vet books deal with the symptoms of the last 40 years of our now common feeding practices. So it is hard to get an objective opinion these days from a vet or a vet book. They are treating what they see, and they don’t question the feeding practices that have led up to the diseases. Ketosis, acidosis, milk fever are all common these days, and all lead back to the manger. All diseases that weren’t so common even in the 60’s. I am not anti-medicine, I am just more for prevention. We so often just look for solutions to the latest pickle we get into – not what the root cause was. I know I annoy readers with any plugs for unconventional treatments for livestock. It’s not progressive to want to avoid antibiotics and modern painkillers. But it’s not so much the drugs I want to avoid as it is the pain that the livestock needlessly goes through that require those types of treatments. Imagine having stock that doesn’t need so much intervention and that thrive. Instead of investing in a calf-puller for pulling too large of a calf, or a hip lifter because the cows are prone to being down – think instead of getting a different bull, or buying that bag of kelp or dry cow minerals that may help alleviate those common maladies.
If you want to build a natural system without buying minerals, you must cull the animals that can’t make it on your land. That means don’t use calf pulling as a standard, no heroic hip lifting, or cesarean sections on stock that can’t deliver naturally. If they make it through the birth process, and shun their young, they need to go. I think culling is the hardest part of farming. But it is the necessary part if you are to be economically viable. With farming fast becoming a popular second career for many people, they have deep pockets from former jobs or house sales and no balls. It is hard to really put the pencil to that prize cow who could potentially make you some money if…if she can walk on her own four feet, and if she has her calf unassisted and it nurses without you “helping.” Otherwise, she is bound for the sale barn or freezer. Same with the ewe who births triplets. It looks good on paper but usually doesn’t pencil out in the long run. Most new farmers these days set a figure of $20.00 to $25.00 bucks an hour for a wage. Bottle feeding bummers will cost you, while the ewe that has a single or twin will raise her babies and do a good job. She will be your money-maker, not the one with three babies, that may have reproductive problems in the future.
Read, and learn as much as you can. Always be open to the information presented to you. Just because you’re reading a book about dairy cows, doesn’t mean you can’t apply the logic to beef cattle and sheep too. Different ruminants are similar – if highly fertilized alfalfa or grass hay can cause mineral imbalances in cattle that leads to downer cows, then the same can happen with sheep or horses. The same with poor quality feed too. No book has all the answers. Each person perceives the their situation is different. A good read, but not necessarily the bible on ruminant care is Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals, by Paul Detloff, DVM. He is a conventional vet that switched to more natural treatments, good photos of troubled animals and treatments listed for conventional and natural type treatments. He is able to see both sides and understands the economics of keeping farm animals. There are many good books, get them all if you can afford it and pick and choose. The saying that 95% of dairy cows health problems are diet, and the other 5% unexplained means that we can do a lot with just a little better feeding and observation. Pat Coleby’s Natural Care Series of books on different species are good too, but a little out there for the western medicine thought process. Food can be medicine, our healthcare system needs to be in the preventative mode instead of the saving mode. We need to do the same with our farms.
Do I follow my own rules? No, not always. I live in the rainy part of the country – my cows have to walk through some mud to get to the barn. But I time their breeding for late spring calving so they will be on pasture when birth is imminent. Do I keep a really sharp pencil when it comes to culling time? Most of the time.